There were times when being an Avenger well and truly sucked. Not just 'I'm tired and beat up and hurt all over' or even 'they're going to blow the world up yet again', but in a real 'god, I can't keep doing this, seeing this, watching such suffering anymore' dark and depressive sort of way. They all had those kinds of assignments where good people got hurt, innocents weren't saved, and the true depravity of mankind was laid bare before them; unable to prevent bad things from happening, the evil deeds they saw could twist the strongest on constitutions. All they could do was try their best to not go totally off the deep-end, to keep their shit together long enough to get through the worst of all debriefings – the FUBAR wind downs – and get home to crawl into their beds and pull the covers over their heads, wallowing in their own private hells until they pulled themselves up and went out and did it again.

Despite being a team, they got called out in different configurations – ones and twos and threes and sometimes fours - but rarely all six and only then in the biggest of big, world-ending scenarios. Tony got all the big time PR jobs where there would be cameras, the 'be there in a flash' and the 'face down the big bad assholes spouting really cheesy dialogue'. Steve was perfect for storming the castle and saving hostages, and he looked really good on TV when things went wrong and they inevitably had to clean up the mess they'd made; who wouldn't feel better with Captain America telling them the bad guy was defeated even in a trashed city? Bruce actually got called out as much for himself as for the Other Guy, a fact that really surprised the shy doctor. His expertise in nuclear physics came in damn handy for mad scientists, and his contacts he'd made over the years on the run had been useful many times over. Easy to assume that the Hulk was good at smashing, but he was also excellent with children, so much like a child himself that he'd go along to help keep them calm when they were involved. Strange thing to see, toddlers and preschoolers climbing all over the big green bulk like a jungle gym, but he absolutely loved it, and the only time Clint ever saw the Big Guy cry was when a child was hurt. Thor relished any challenge and would volunteer for the monster of the week without hesitation regardless of the size or smell, for which they were all grateful, but Tony refused to start mounting the heads on the wall in the Tower. Everyone agreed that was too much.

Clint and Natasha were different; their past as SHIELD agents put them in line for the kinds of missions that dealt with drug dealers, child molesters, and human traffickers. At first, the thought had been that the Avengers dealt with the big threats like Loki and HYDRA, but they'd all agreed on the importance of the small things as well. So Natasha spent even more time undercover, infiltrating all kinds of scum of the earth, and Clint still found himself perched on roofs, target in his sights, waiting to take the shot. The problem was, they came dragging back, mentally fucked by what they'd seen more often than the others, unable to do more than put one foot in front of the other. Natasha seemed to deal with it in her own ways – throwing knives in the wall and destroying the practice room helped – and she never let the others know just how much things got to her. But Clint couldn't hide it, not when his handler was sleeping in the same bed with him, waiting for Clint to come back battered and bruised; Phil would look at him with those knowing eyes and instantly see exactly how bad things were.

In some ways, Phil had it the worst; he was the ultimate voyeur most of the time as the others engaged the villains. The distance did nothing to lessen the impact; watching a child die at the hands of a criminal or an innocent civilian go down beneath falling concrete was never easy, no matter where he was. Late at night, he'd play it all back in his mind, thinking of what they could have done differently, and, if he was feeling brutally honest, indulge in a sense of frustration over his sideline status; as much as everyone else, Phil wanted to be running into danger, not waiting it out, fingers itching to pull a trigger or curl into a fist. No, Phil spent far too much time mouthing silent promises to whatever deity might be listening, hoping to never hear the call that anyone was hurt or missing or down … especially Clint.

When Phil came into their room that night, feet barely clearing the carpet, dropping his ready bag just inside the door, he didn't look up, all too aware of Clint half-asleep on the couch, the light of the television casting shadows across the room . He was covered in slashes of black ash on his suit and cheeks, dried blood on his hands, smelling of smoke and sweat; Clint said nothing as Phil slowly made his way to the bathroom, peeling off his suit, one piece at time, leaving the jacket tossed over the back of a chair, the tie on the kitchen counter top, his shirt in a pile on the floor where it fell. Balancing with one hand on the wall, he unlaced and shook off one shoe then the other followed by a puddle of slacks. He couldn't work up the effort to close the door, just making it to the shower to turn the knobs and stand under the hot spray, so scalding his skin turned red as he scrubbed hard enough to scrape off the first layer of skin. Bowing his head, he stayed there until his skin was winkling and, in any other place but Stark Tower, the water would long ago have gone cold; taking the towel and wrapping it around his waist, his only thought was to slide between the cool sheets and lose himself to unconsciousness, let Clint hold him until he finally began to feel again. He padded out of the bathroom and headed that way.

"Phil," Clint spoke quietly, standing by the desk, a lamp the only source of light in the room now. "Come here."

He stopped, but didn't look up. "Clint. I'm not …"

"Come here," Clint repeated calmly, without any inflexion, just a simple request, holding out his hand and waiting while Phil thought about it; his brain dulled by exhaustion and an edge of grief, he couldn't deny Clint. Stepping over, he took the warm hand, letting Clint guide him to the edge of the desk and ease him down; he sighed and relaxed on his back, turning himself over to Clint's ministrations. Opening the drawer, Clint took out a set of Phil's ink pens and markers and sat them by Phil's side.

"That's your kink," Phil murmured while Clint blotted the nub onto a pad.

"Damn straight. And I can't wait to see my handwriting all over your skin." Clint smiled, easy and soft, his eyes filled with understanding and concern; he knew exactly how Phil was feeling, the amount of effort it took to even speak when the darkness surrounded and dragged him down.

"Not sure I can get into this," Phil warned, but even as he said it, he felt the first brush of the metal tip; it was cool against his skin still warm from the shower and the letters curved in time to his breaths, soothing and yet tantalizing at the same time. Clint started in the upper left corner of his chest, writing his way across and back, in no particular order, not staying in the lines but going with the contours of Phil's body.

"Amsterdam." Clint wrote the word in cursive, his voice quiet in the stillness of the room. "That's when we met for the first time, even if you didn't know it. I watched you from the rooftop of that boutique hotel; you let the girl leave the room first even though it could have cost you the window of opportunity to get Northingham. Hell, I almost beat you to him." He bent and dropped a light kiss on Phil's cheek. "And I knew, right then, you were going to be a major distraction. Couldn't have been a coincidence us ending up there at the same time. Not when we crossed paths again just a month later in Marrakesh." The pen left his chest and touched back down on his left bicep; Clint wrote the name in Arabic with the umlauts and accents, adding scrolling lines. "Murphy was in charge of that one, remember? Idiot didn't listen to you and Stilwell got shot. He still limps when he wants sympathy. And I got to the mark first that time."

"You can't know that." Phil watched Clint smile indulgently at him through half-opened eyes. "Tell me you didn't break into classified files."

"I didn't break into classified files," Clint said as he wrote that exact phrase down Phil's arm, ending with a kiss to the back of his hand. "I solemnly swear."

"Tony." Phil would have shaken his head, but he was feeling lighter, less weighted down by the second and he didn't want to lose the moment, darkness fading beneath the glide of the ink. Clint started on the right arm, changing to another color as he continued, inking in the word Paraiba.

"First time we were in the field together. Major clusterfuck all around. Lost four agents trying to get out of the compound, but you saved six others by going in after them, one of them me. You dragged me out despite a bullet in your calf."

"Clint," Phil half-heartedly protested; if he closed his eyes, he would swear that he could tell what letters were forming, as if he could see the word before Clint finished it.

"Grimstad." Clint moved to Phil's stomach, inscribing the city's name. "We saved seventeen children from a slavery ring."

"Ha Noi. A.I.M. was developing a toxic cloud weapon for population control." Phil shivered as Clint dotted the accents on the letters, both from the pleasure the tap of the pen gave and the feelings the word stirred.

"They released it on the base; killed everyone there." And he'd been the one to walk in the door just minutes later, mask safely in place, a witness for the dead.

"But they didn't get to follow through on their plan to attack Shanghai." Clint drew curls up along Phil's side, turning it to numbers. "What's that? 23 million people saved, give or take?"

"I know what you're doing." Phil was surprised how well it was working, too; he was relaxing under the scrape and drag of the pen, letting the tension go. It was also sexy as hell, lying perfectly still as Clint engraved their history onto his body. The towel certainly wasn't hiding his growing interest in the proceedings.

"Good. Shall we talk about Sorocaba?" A list followed the trail of Phil's abs, curving around his belly button. "Do I have to remind you of their names, Phil?" He knew the names, knew the faces, bruised and battered but so full of hope when they stumbled out of the dank prison they'd been held in for far too long. Women, children, grandparents, all free from the regime of a cartel drug lord; even if the fight had been brutal, hadn't that been worth it? "You know, you just have to remember." Clint kept writing, unknotting the towel over Phil's right hip and pushing it aside to bare the skin of his thigh, letters spilling down his leg.

Dushanbe. An assassination plot of the German Chancellor.

Bontang. Sex slave operation supplying runaway girls to the highest bidder.

Conrad. A homemade bomb factory and survivalist training for HYDRA.

Puerta Carreno. Stolen plans for new stealth technology.

It was a constant barrage, faces of those rescued, terrors averted, all of it turning back the sense of failure he'd felt earlier. What occurred to Phil then, as Clint's fingers trailed back up the inside of his thigh, was that he was the luckiest of men, to have this person who not only knew what he was feeling but so intuitively understood how to pull him back into the world of the living. Where would he be if they'd gone on with the deception, ignoring what was is their hearts as they had before, still together but separate; how much more would an op like this hurt, how much easier would the dark consume him? To never have known the way lust and heat and need could be multiplied by love and caring and a bond that meant never being alone.

"You forgot one." Phil caught Clint's left hand and brought it over his heart. "Your name's already here. Write it for me, Clint." He heard Clint's quick intake of breath then the pen grazed, and he sensed each letter as it appeared, spelled out where he could see and feel it: Clinton Francis Barton. Even before the curve of the N was finished, he wrapped his hand around Clint's neck and tugged him down for a kiss, a leisurely exploration of lips, unhurried, and still racy and erotic and everything that they needed it to be.

Clint finally broke away, a smirk on his face as he looked down on Phil. "I was going to be good and not push, you know. But all bets are off now." He tugged the towel off and sat up. The pen settled lower and Clint began to write the things he was going to do, the words spiraling closer and closer until he dipped down into the hollow of Phil's hipbone. "How about I write all the things I love about you?" Even the slightest brush made Phil jump and he was sure the words were jumbled and unsteady, but Clint wrote anyway. "I love the taste of you beneath my lips, the feel of your hands on my skin, the way you bite your bottom lip when you're about to come, the ink on your fingers when you've been writing reports that leaves smudges when you touch me." Phil closed his eyes and bit his lip hard as the images assaulted him along with the smooth curling lines of the pen. "I love how to you take care of all of us, how you can make me scream without even touching me, how you know when to leave me alone to brood and when to kick my ass and get me going again."

When the tip of the pen touched the aching flesh of his hard shaft, Phil gasped, "you're not going to …" but he should have known better than to ask; it was Clint's fantasy after all.

"I love how warm your mouth is, the way you clench up when I'm inside you, the fingerprints you leave when you hold on …." Clint barely got the words out when Phil closed his eyes and let himself go, nearly blacking out as he came. Murmuring encouragement, Clint leaned down and brushed little kisses along the line of Phil's jaw as he dragged in air, chest heaving; stroking through his hair, Clint's fingers held him steady. "Feel better?" Clint asked when Phil could think again.

"Not yet." He braced his foot on the edge of the desk and let his leg fall open. "We're not done."

At that, Clint smiled and stood, shimmying out of his sweats and tossing the soft tee off. "I was hoping you'd say that. Going to be messy."

"I think I can handle another shower before bed."

They took their time, Clint opening him up languidly, amid laughter that alternated with declarations of love, and then he was inside of Phil, long thrusts that grew so gradually they could stop between, content with the intimacy of the moment, until Phil finally urged Clint on, wrapping his legs around Clint's waist and pulling him down onto his hands. Skin rubbed across skin and ink smeared, words changed and rewritten by their movements, some obliterated as the pleasure drove the memories out, replacing them with contentment and satisfaction. When Clint collapsed on top of him, Phil took his hand and placed it over his name then he kissed each fingertip and the ink that marked them. Later, when they crawled in bed, clean and tired and ready to sleep, Phil told Clint what had happened – the young boys given guns and told to fight, making the right call that ended in far too much blood. With Clint sprawled on top of him, the phantom feel of words still writ large on his skin, the memory no longer had a hold on him, and he could see it for what it was, another example of the inhumanity of people, the corruption of too much money and power that was all too familiar.

Being an Avenger … or the SHIELD liaison to the Avengers … sometimes meant making decisions that had consequences and dealing with the aftermath. All of them had to learn to survive the crash when it came or they wouldn't last long in this job; just because they'd been through it before didn't mean it would get any easier the next time. As Phil faded off to sleep, comforted by Clint's weight, he breathed a silent prayer that this time things had gone well, that he was here and able to tighten his arms around his lover, to feel Clint's steady heartbeat against his skin. That was, in the end, all that mattered, this one moment; no use worrying all the strength from tomorrow, when there'd be a different job, another city, another target, more chances to fail. He could only inscribe now on his heart and leave the rest to be lived.